Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) bid to become the next House Speaker fell short on Tuesday in a string of three consecutive votes, marking a chaotic opening to a new Congress — and dampening the Republicans’ celebration as they took control of the House for the first time since 2018.

The GOP standoff — pitting McCarthy and his allies against a small but persistent group of conservative firebrands — led to a bizarre day of commotion and confusion on the House floor, where frustrated Republicans sniped internally, amused Democrats reveled in the GOP’s struggles and lawmakers of both parties were forced to consider multiple speaker ballots for the first time in a century.

“Hunter Thompson was right: When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.).

After McCarthy failed to secure the 218 votes he needed on the third ballot, Republican leaders quickly adjourned the chamber, punting the process to Wednesday. 

It was not the start to 2023 that Republicans had hoped to see. 

Despite underperforming in November’s midterms, Republicans had successfully flipped control of the lower chamber after just four years in the minority wilderness. And they’ve been eager to make good on their campaign promises, from moving legislation to address the volatile economy to launching investigations into a host of Biden administration initiatives. 

Instead, the impasse over the Speakership has left the House rudderless and in limbo, putting virtually all lower chamber business on hold — including the process of swearing in members — until the logjam is broken and the replacement for former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is seated. 

“You can’t finish finalizing your committee chairmen and assignments and staff, so it does hold that up,” said Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.). “But getting your leader right — that is more than anything else. You got to get your leader right and then, from there, you can do all your work.”

The internal opposition to McCarthy from the GOP’s right flank was no surprise: A small but determined group of conservatives had forecast for weeks that they would vote against his Speakership bid. And given the Republicans’ slim majority — they control 222 seats, to the Democrats’ 212 — McCarthy can afford to lose only four GOP votes. 

But the number of McCarthy detractors appeared to grow even higher in recent days, despite certain concessions to his critics. And the number of Republicans who opposed him on the floor — 19 in each of the first two ballots, and 20 in the third — was greater than even McCarthy’s sharpest critics had predicted.  

“It’s higher than most people thought it would be,” said Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), who has emerged as one of McCarthy’s most vocal GOP critics.

McCarthy’s plan was to wear down his opposition, and he was encouraged by the second ballot, which found no new detractors. In fact, the candidate his opponents put up against him — Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) — made the nominating speech for McCarthy ahead of that vote. 

“Their whole plan was for me to fall 40 on the second ballot and put Jim Jordan,” he said. 

“Their secret candidate nominated me, so where do they go now?” he continued. “I’m staying until we win.”

Yet the third ballot saw a slight erosion in McCarthy’s support, when Donalds shifted his vote to Jordan. 

“The reality is Rep. Kevin McCarthy doesn’t have the votes,” Donalds tweeted, explaining the shift. “I committed my support to him publicly and for two votes on the House Floor. 218 is the number, and currently, no one is there. Our conference needs to recess and huddle and find someone or work out the next steps.”

Shortly afterward, the House was adjourned. 

The opposition — and the embarrassing scene it created on the House floor on Tuesday — infuriated McCarthy’s supporters, who accused the detractors of empowering President Biden and the Democrats on the very day Republicans were taking control of the lower chamber. 

Rep. Daniel Crenshaw, a third-term Texas Republican, called McCarthy’s opponents “political terrorists” who had put Republicans on a “path to suicide and getting Biden reelected in ’24.”

Other McCarthy allies accused the detractors of being obstructionists without offering any concrete ideas — or putting forward a viable Speaker candidate — of their own. 

“When asked point blank what they wanted, they had no answer,” said an angry Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.). 

For McCarthy, it’s not the first time he’s sought the Speaker’s gavel only to have those plans stymied by conservatives. After Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was nudged into an early retirement by the far-right House Freedom Caucus in 2015, McCarthy was widely expected to fill the empty seat. But those same conservatives blocked McCarthy’s path, and he stepped out of the race before any votes were held on the floor. 

This time around McCarthy has been more defiant, vowing in recent weeks that he would not drop out of the race, as he did in 2015, even if the conservatives had the numbers to block his ascent. And he carried that defiance straight through Tuesday’s votes, saying the math will “eventually change” in his favor. 

“I know the path,” he said. 

Yet his critics are equally entrenched in their opposition. And it was their defiance that sunk McCarthy in the three ballots on Tuesday and forced the House to adjourn without a Speaker for the first time since 1923. As Republicans huddle Tuesday night to regroup, the detractors are vowing to hold their ground. 

“It’s going to be increasingly clear he’s not going to be Speaker,” Good said. “We will never cave. We will never vote for him. The sooner he pulls out for the good of the country, for the good of the Congress, for the good of the conference, the better everyone is and that way we can move together to try to find who the best person is.”

Emily Brooks, Al Weaver, Aris Folley and Mychael Schnell contributed.